The NBA season is long enough to make you question everything you thought you knew about the NBA season.
It has been seven months since teams reported for training camp, and so much happened that it’s easy to forget even the unforgettable moments, such as the time that J.R. Smith threw a bowl of soup at one of Cleveland’s assistant coaches. That is how nuts the NBA gets on a nightly basis. A player fired soup at his coach and you might have already forgotten about it.
The perpetually dramatic nature of the modern NBA can make you think so much about basketball that you end up overthinking. You read Twitter. You listen to noise. You trick yourself into believing stuff that isn’t true, if only because the league is a whole lot more entertaining that way. Inevitability gets boring over 82 games.
But let’s go all the way back to the ancient days of October, before soup was a weapon, and remember how this season was supposed to play out. The public odds had the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets favored in the Western Conference, and the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics favored in the Eastern Conference. And look where the NBA is now: The Celtics and Cavaliers survived Game 7s in the first round and have 3-0 leads in their playoff series with closeout games on Monday night while the Warriors and Rockets take 3-1 leads back to their home courts on Tuesday night. Everything happened, and nothing changed.
The upshot of this weekend’s playoff games is that the NBA’s four best teams are likely to be playing each other in the conference finals, and they are the NBA’s four best teams for exactly the reasons they were expected to be.
Except they didn’t play that way for most of this regular season. The unbeatable Warriors looked awfully beatable when their four All-Stars took turns being injured. The Celtics were so depleted at one point they could’ve used coach Brad Stevens as their point guard. The Cavs exiled six players at the trade deadline, and that was a month before their civil soup war. The Rockets spent the last few weeks of the most successful regular season in the history of the franchise anxiously waiting for something terrible to happen.
It seemed possible that a surprising upstart would emerge from the West, and it even seemed possible the top-seeded Toronto Raptors wouldn’t be humiliated by LeBron James and four human beings who happen to be wearing Cavs uniforms. It wasn’t. Which, in many ways, is the purpose of the NBA playoffs. Anything can happen in one NFL playoff game. MLB playoff matchups get turned upside down with every pitching change. There is licking in the NHL playoffs. A rogue licker in the NBA would be worth several billion dollars to Twitter market cap.
But the NBA postseason, more than any other sport’s, rewards the best teams. The NCAA tournament is a hallucinogenic; the NBA playoffs are Xanax. A seven-game series over four rounds is the enemy of aberrations, outliers and upsets. The teams that win are the teams that are supposed to win.
What makes this year’s NBA playoffs interesting is why those teams are winning. The Celtics, Cavaliers, Warriors and Rockets find themselves on the brink of the conference finals because each one of them has exploited a strategic advantage that any smart basketball fan could have identified even before the season. They’re winning because of how they were built to win.
The Boston Celtics
The Celtics have Brad Stevens on their bench, and he’s the reason they’re one game from the Eastern Conference finals with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward also on their bench.
There comes a point in every playoff series when teams know so much about each other they could tell you the flavor of their opponent’s breakfast smoothie. The games are won on the margins, and no coach is worth more in these situations than Stevens, who consumes a voluminous amount of information in search of any edge that can help the Celtics win a playoff game. Stevens is as responsible as anyone for Boston’s surprising 3-0 lead against the Philadelphia 76ers. His strategies have neutralized Sixers guard Ben Simmons on offense and dragged Sixers center Joel Embiid away from the basket on defense. He is brilliant at putting his players in a position to succeed, which happens to be the entire point of his job.
The Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland has LeBron James.
The Golden State Warriors
Golden State still has more talent than any NBA team ever constructed, and the way the Warriors annihilated the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday was a reminder of what an enormous upset it would be if they didn’t repeat as champions. Steve Kerr explained his decision to unleash the destructive lineup of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala from the very beginning of the game with simple logic: “You’re on the road, you’re threatened, you put your best five guys out there.” They played 18 minutes together. They outscored whatever lineups the Pelicans bothered playing by 63 points per 100 possessions. They won.
The Houston Rockets
Houston has James Harden and Chris Paul. Harden is almost certainly going to be named the NBA’s most valuable player, which makes it all the more unfair that Paul might be the Rockets’ most valuable player in the playoffs.
They signed him last summer not only because he’s a Hall of Fame point guard and not only because it meant they would have a Hall of Fame point guard on the court for every possession of every game. They also signed Paul for offensive variety. This is a team that fetishizes efficiency, believes in shooting more layups, free throws and 3-pointers than anyone thought possible and shuns the mid-range. In the playoffs, though, they can’t be picky. When teams force them to play in the mid-range, it’s useful to have a player who loves the mid-range. And the presence of Chris Paul is their strategic adjustment this season.
What happened over the weekend was Houston’s plan come to life. Paul was personally responsible for more than half of the Rockets’ attempts from the mid-range in their two games against the Utah Jazz. And he was efficient from the land of inefficiency. Paul, a career 45.9% mid-range shooter, shot a career-high 53.9% from the mid-range in his first season with a Rockets offense that’s designed to stretch defenses, and he’s shooting 53.1% in the playoffs after he went 8-of-13 this weekend.
The Rockets, like the Celtics, Cavaliers and Warriors, won for the reason they were supposed to win. It was a perfect encapsulation of this NBA season that began in October with an opening night schedule of two games: Celtics vs. Cavaliers and Rockets vs. Warriors.
Write to Ben Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the May 8, 2018, print edition as 'Don’t Overthink the NBA Playoffs.'
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